Stunning Motivation

Getting the Motivation You Need for Success

How To Use Science To Change The Way You Set Goals

goal setting science

Every motivational speaker on the planet talks about the benefits of setting goals. Many of them have a unique approach on the best approach to setting goals, ranging from specific ways to write goals down, unique visualization processes that manifest goals and even mini cards that you carry everywhere with you. If your refrigerator door isn’t covered in affirmations and lists of positively-worded goals after a motivational seminar, you might wonder if your goals are ever going to happen.

This is a guest article contributed by Dan Storey from

The good news is that goal setting seems to work regardless of the approach. Sure, having an acronym like SMART might make it easier to construct your goals, but it isn’t the way you write your goals down that determines whether they will be achieved. Just setting goals is enough in itself to raise your levels of success.

Research into the field of goal setting science has been taking place since 1944, where researchers started to investigate the links between goals and aspirations. This progressed into more industrial psychology research as scientists started looking at the effect of goals on worker performance. It is only more recently that social scientists have looked at the wider scope of goal setting for the rest of the population and been able to pull together all of the findings into a model that we can apply to our own goal setting processes.

Much of the most recent research on goal setting has been conducted by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, and it is their papers that provide the most actionable tactics that we need to incorporate when we set goals. Not only have they been able to identify WHY goal setting works, but they have identified moderating factors that help us figure out if we are going to stick to our goals or drop out the second it gets tough.

Why Do Goals Work?

Goal setting research shows that there are four different mechanisms that cause goals to work:

1. Directive Function

Goals direct attention toward goal-related activities and away from irrelevant distractions. With the amount of information available in today’s world, limiting the amount of useless noise that enters our attention helps us get clear on exactly what we want, and investing our energy into actions that will move us toward our goals helps make us far more productive.

2. Energizing Function

Goals tend to provide us with more energy, whether those goals are physical, such as running a marathon, or cognitive, such as writing a book. No matter what our goal, we become energized to allow us to put in both the physical and mental effort required to reach success, no matter how long it takes.

3. Persistence

Hard goals often require prolonged effort, so being persistent is an absolute necessity if we want to achieve anything significant. By having stronger goals, we tend to be persistent, working harder over a period of time than people without goals. Persistence also allows us to work more intensely over shorter periods, with tight deadlines leading to an increased pace of work.

4. Task-Relevant Knowledge & Strategies

In order to reach our goals, we often have to learn new skills or techniques. By setting goals, we programmed our psychology to either look for new knowledge or find a way to apply existing knowledge to a challenging situation. Assuming that our goals are of appropriate difficulty and we feel we have the necessary resources to achieve them, we will find ways to develop the strategies necessary to succeed.

What Makes Goals Effective?

I’m sure this has never happened to you, but I’m sure you know of people who set goals but then never follow through, right? For some reason, when setting goals, they seem super motivated, but immediately after the pen stops writing, the excuses come out. Or maybe they make some progress, but their efforts soon fall by the wayside.

This is where the science of goal achievement can really help us identify strategies to improve the connection between goal setting and goal-directed behavior. If goal setting was enough, life would be as simple as writing a letter to Santa. However, the consistent goal-directed behavior is what sets the most successful people apart.

There are 3 factors that affect how likely we are to stick to our goals.

1. Commitment

Being committed to our goals is an essential part of whether or not we will stick to them long-term. Commitment is constructed from two main components: Importance and Self-Efficacy.

Goals are important if they are in alignment with our beliefs and values. For example, if health is important to us, it should be easy to follow through on a goal based on an exercise plan or healthy eating approach. However, if health isn’t that important to us, that same goal will be a lot more susceptible to dropout. If goals are not in alignment with our view of the world, we need convincing to follow through, either through education, inspirational leadership or positive reinforcement.

Self-Efficacy plays many parts in helping us achieve our goals. Generally defined as the belief we hold about our own ability to succeed, high self-efficacy is linked to persistence and follow through. We can boost self-efficacy through effective training, role modeling or through persuasive communication from a leader, coach or mentor.

2. Feedback

Although most people profess to want feedback, what they really want is positive feedback and to know they are on the right track. This kind of feedback is also essential and provides boosts in motivation and self-efficacy, but without the opportunity for negative feedback, it is only one part of the story.

Negative, constructive or corrective feedback allows us to identify if something is not working as well as it should be. At this point, we can choose to moan and complain or take the more productive approach of fixing and adjusting our behavior accordingly.

When people take on new goals, they are often reluctant to receive feedback, as early on there will often be a lot of slow progress and mistakes as the learning and experience are developed. However, it is at this exact time that feedback is the most important.

3. Task Complexity

In general, more challenging tasks are more motivating for individuals. However, the ability to succeed at challenging goals will always be limited by the individual’s ability to learn new techniques and strategies, after which point, increasingly challenging goals need a different approach to be useful.

For most goals, our measurement is based on performance. Performance-related goals measure our outcomes in terms of productivity and success, and this is great when a goal is possible for us.

When goals are impossible, or beyond our current capabilities, performance goals can be de-motivating. Instead, we should measure our development and learn en-route to these more significant outcomes. Learning or development goals focus on a ‘do your best’ approach to a task, rewarding progress and development rather than reaching a goal that is beyond reach, at least for now.

How To Set Goals Using Goal Setting Science

So now we have had a look at the science, how do we use this to set more effective goals?

Well, in reality, we do not really need to change our approach a huge amount. As long as we are writing our goals, visualizing their achievement and making plans, then we are going to be ahead of most people who aren’t setting any goals.

However, if we are going to use the ideas from goal setting science, here are the most important elements to include in your goal setting process:

1. Remove Distractions

Goal setting works through helping us focus, but we can assist this function by removing distractions from our environment. Help your brain focus on your goals by deleting time-sucking apps from your mobile phone, unsubscribing from excessive e-newsletters and turning off notifications for every email or social alert that comes in.

2. Increase Energy

Find ways to improve your energy levels naturally to support your goal-focused endeavors. Drink more water, reduce your sugar intake and get more exercise throughout the day, rather than staying stuck to your desk. This shift will support you in all your goals, as well as other areas of your life.

3. Break Goals Down

Performance accomplishments help boost self-efficacy and increase your belief in achieving your goals. By breaking bigger goals down into smaller pieces, you are able to build momentum and self-belief and maximize your chances of success. Think of smaller sub-goals for all of your goals that you will be able to celebrate on your way to the larger prize.

4. Role Model Success

By having someone you can model, you are able to experience success vicariously. Even watching someone else achieve the level of performance you are aiming for helps you build belief and self-efficacy. If it is possible for them, it is possible for you, so find someone one or two steps ahead of you and learn all you can from them.

5. Get A Coach

Verbal persuasion is a powerful way to boost your self-efficacy. Having someone says the right things at the right times can help keep you motivated, focused and driven, even if you don’t feel like it.

A coach is a great way of getting this verbal persuasion, but you can also use audio programs, record your own affirmations or download a range of motivational speeches.

Coaches can also help you by providing objective feedback on your performance. They may be able to spot scotomas or blind spots, that when you are in the heat of the moment you just are not aware of. This perspective is often invaluable in identifying alternative approaches toward your goals.

6. Raise The Bar

Remember, bigger goals are more motivating, so think big. Before you get overwhelmed, break that goal down into smaller performance accomplishments, refocus on learning or development objectives rather than performance goals, and commit to celebrating even the smallest successes on the journey.

By setting a bigger goal, you are already programming your persistence and resilience for the journey. Now you just need to build the momentum.

Enjoy The Journey

Remember, the road to success is long, often bumpy and not well traveled. There is no highway to success where you can engage the autopilot, sit back and watch the world go by as you cruise towards your goals. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the journey.

In fact, stress has been shown to have a physiological effect on the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that coordinates goal-directed behavior. When we get stressed, cortisol is released and pulled us away from goal-orientated actions toward habitual behavior.

Have you ever wondered why a three-hour candy crush binge is so tempting when you feel stressed? This is our brain looking for habitual ways to reduce stress, rather than engaging in the behaviors that will encourage our development. Getting stressed doesn’t help, so find a way to balance relaxation and focus.

We should take time out during our journey to success to appreciate our progress. Celebrate smaller successes. Periodically look back and record the progress you have made. Write a journal that details major steps and milestones.

When you are climbing the mountain, it often seems that the summit is insurmountable. At these times, we can stop climbing for a moment and enjoy the incredible view that surrounds us.

Remember how not so long ago we were right at the bottom, we hadn’t even started this journey? Look how far you have come. Yes, we still have a way to go, and the knowledge we have already done so much should spur us on and keep us energized.

This article was not about presenting the full science behind goal setting theory. Instead, I hope this unique approach of practical techniques based on cutting-edge research proves to be useful to you when you next set your goals.

As discussed, goal setting works, and we can all benefit from being more focused, energized, persistent and resourceful in achieving our dreams. However, if we include even just a couple of the tips above, we will find our goal setting process to be so much more effective. Good luck.


About the Author

Dan Storey is the creator of Motiv8Seminars and a personal development junkie. Dan has worked in and around the world of motivational seminars for many years, starting as a volunteer and affiliate before heading up one of the UK’s biggest personal development seminar companies. Dan has been training NLP to businesses and salespeople for over 10 years and is the author of Next Level Persuasion. He is also currently working towards his MSc in Behavioural Psychology and is constantly trying to figure out why we do what we do. Find out more about Dan Storey at

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About Shawn Lim

I'm a blogger, writer, and also an internet entrepreneur. If you want to learn more about me, kindly go to the About page. By the way, have you downloaded your FREE copy of Active Goal Setting? Don't forget to do so. :)

2 Replies

  1. hi,

    this is one of the the great posting which you have posted here this is very motivational for us all topics with all question which they are very interesting to utilize for our life very nicely so thanks for this posting

  2. I hear a person with courage. The kind of courage it takes to create a business. I hear a person with intelligence. The intelligence to know what they want in life. These two qualities along with that persistence and nothing can stop you but you. I know you know better than to believe you have to be perfect in this life to succeed. I know you say that because it feels that way and I agree it feels so but who in this world is perfect? You succeed through strength and persistence. The sheer will to not stop until you”re holding success in your palm. You have these qualities and I am sure a lot more. You write beautifully! Do you realise that not many people ever even begin to create the life they want like you, creating a business? It failed. I hear you but you made it happen for a moment and many people don”t even try. Life kicks everyone multiple times and success starts when we get back up. Life”s beatings are for us to learn and become stronger. Not to make us feel like failures or pieces of shit. Because we fail doesn”t make us failures it”s when we stop trying because even when you have no legs you can still find a way to get back up. I”m curious what your business was if you want to share. I am a pretty good cook. I make a killer pizza sauce and I have a great recipe for a yeastless dough if you want to go into the restaurant biz with melol I wish you peace. my customer essay

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